By all accounts, Bangladesh has done exceptionally well over the past two decades. This is true for both economic and social progress, where the internationally accepted indicators have placed Bangladesh at the forefront of nations in the developing world in terms of reducing deep poverty and improving the lives of tens of millions of its citizens. This is especially true for its positive impact on women, particularly in terms of education for girls, women's employment, and improving the quality of their lives.
Bangladesh is a relatively young nation—not quite 50 years old. The country has emerged from the shadows of abject poverty and famines to evolve into a nation where rapid and sustained economic growth has benefitted a broad segment of society, moving tens of millions out of extreme poverty to the lower-middle-class over the past 20 years. No, the economy of Bangladesh has not yet replicated the double-digit growth attained by China in its early years of growth spurt, but we have done sufficiently well so that the economic and social development in Bangladesh can be described as somewhat of a “miracle”. This sterling performance has definitely proved Mr Henry Kissinger and other pessimists wrong, and has brought a smile to those who had believed in the potential and promise of this young nation…
The case for the future development of Bangladesh is strong. I would like to shed light on the challenges and threats Bangladesh faces both internally and externally, but overall I remain very optimistic. The people of Bangladesh have demonstrated many times their ability to work hard, and be resilient in the face of numerous threats and challenges, including severe natural disasters.
The secret behind the success of Bangladesh is the Bangladeshi people. It is the entrepreneurs and the millions of women who left their village homes to work in the RMG factories. It is the NGO leaders such as Brac and Grameen Bank; it is the farmers and the millions of hardworking Bangladeshis overseas who send their incomes each month to their families; and, of course, those in the public sector—the government (and the opposition too)—who love their country.
There is much to celebrate about this nation of 165 million people, where nearly 50 percent of the population is under the age of 24. In recent years, GDP growth as high as 7.9 percent powered by RMG exports (which have reached nearly USD 35 billion annually) has pushed the economy up from LDC status to lower middle-income status (2015). Extreme poverty (those living on less than USD 1.90 a day) has been reduced from 44 percent (1991) to under 10 percent in 2018.
However, as we celebrate these successes, it is our obligation as scholars and citizens to ask tough questions to the policymakers and politicians in government. The following is my list of top five questions.
One, why are foreign businesses staying away from investing in the Bangladesh economy? What can we do to attract a decent level of foreign direct investment (FDI)? The FDI has increased in recent years, but pales in comparison to what Vietnam and other nations are receiving. Fortunately, the country maintains a healthy reserve of foreign exchange because of two sectors: the dynamic RMG export sector and remittance from hardworking expatriate workers sending their incomes back to their families.
Two, what can we do to reduce corruption? On the widely recognised Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, Bangladesh fared poorly in 2018. Its ranking as one of the world's most corrupt nations went down six notches from 143rd out of 180 to 149th out of 180. This is embarrassing to say the least, but also detrimental to social and economic development. Who knows what the GDP growth would be without this endemic corruption? Perhaps, we are losing two to three percentage points annually in GDP growth for our inability to reduce corruption. Every economist and political scientist who has studied the subject will agree that corruption is largely corrosive to development. It undermines the rule of law and makes the playing field uneven. It destroys morale and perpetuates the inequities in wealth and income distribution.
Three, what policies can we pursue to achieve what can be called a “zero-poverty society”? Despite lifting tens of millions of people from extreme poverty, nearly 12 million remain trapped in extreme deprivation. This is likely to be the most difficult group for policymakers to address in order to lift these people out of deprivation. However, as a nation, we must not leave behind anyone as we march out of the LDC camp to the MIC (middle-income country) camp of nations. We must build a strong safety net so that all citizens get a share of the nation's prosperity. This was certainly the dream of Bangabandhu and other founding fathers of the nation.
I hope readers agree with me that my fourth question is not a partisan one: why is it that we have not been able to build a democracy that compares favourably with our outstanding success in the economic arena? We are justifiably proud of Bangladesh's economic success. We should also build a democracy that we are proud of. These two goals should not be mutually exclusive. A democracy that works for all means that as a nation, we are working together, drawing from a bigger pool of ideas and talent in leadership, governance and administration. The future challenges Bangladesh will face are steep. Our chances of success would be much greater if we work together as a nation. Perhaps this is a dream, but it is worth pursuing.
Some may consider this next question frivolous, especially in a discussion on heftier issues such as GDP growth, poverty reduction, and emancipation of women, but I will ask it nevertheless. My final question is: why is it that a nation of 165 million people has not been able to win a medal in the Olympics? Surely, with adequate training and financial support, our talented athletes are perfectly capable of winning medals at the next Olympics, which would undoubtedly make the nation proud. The success of Bangladesh's cricket team shows that we should not underestimate the significance of success in sports at the national and international level for the nation's psyche and self-esteem. Developing self-confidence as a nation is an essential ingredient for development, in my view.
Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of challenges. Extremely high and ever-increasing inequalities in income and wealth distribution, and the negative impact of catastrophic climate change remain major concerns. We must address these issues before it is too late. I hope these questions provide some food for thought as we plan our future steps to strengthen our social and economic progress on the path to becoming a more prosperous and democratic nation, that will improve the lives of its citizens, especially the future generations. I remain optimistic that the people of Bangladesh along with those in leadership in the government (and in opposition), the private sector, and the dynamic expatriate community will work together to build a Bangladesh that the founding fathers and the freedom fighters fought for, and which millions of its citizens aspire for and deserve.
(This article draws from the author's welcome remarks at the recently concluded International Conference on Bangladesh organised by Bangladesh Development Initiative (BDI) at Yale University, in association with the Yale MacMillan Center.)
Dr Munir Quddus is Professor of Economics and Dean of the College of Business at Prairie View A&M University, Texas, USA. He serves as the president of Bangladesh Development Initiative (BDI), a non-partisan Research and Advocacy group based in USA. He can be reached at email@example.com.